Painting of the Ship 

PEARL HARBOR EVENTS

Edson’s Ridge - Guadalcanal

By Wild Bill Wilder

Published Monday, December 26, 2005  

With the die cast as to priorities in the Second World War, there was little that could be accomplished in the area of grand offensives in 1942. The catastrophic defeat suffered by Japan at Midway had begun to shift the hitherto nearly unimpeded offensive impetus from the Japanese to the United States.

The losses suffered in two days of air and naval combat 1,000 miles east of Pearl Harbor had stunted the growth of the “Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere,” and had begun to place the enemy in a defensive posture. The moment had to be seized, however, by the United States, and there was little available with which to do it. Most of America’s military output was going out as Lend-Lease for the fighting in Russia and North Africa, or it was destined to be a part of Operation Torch.

In the Pacific, three US carriers and a contingent of cruisers and smaller ships darted around, looking for the right place and time for another victory. More was needed, however, and it would have to be a ground conflict in which America emerged triumphant. It was the United States that carried the biggest burden in the Pacific fighting and very little of positive effect had as yet been accomplished.

The Battleground is Chosen

The fall of Wake, the Philippines, Singapore and Malaya were severely depressing and gave the initial impression that the Japanese army was invincible. That was not the case, however, and it would be the Marines of the 1st Division that would prove such a hypothesis to be full of holes. The Japanese soldier, even with distinct advantages, could be conquered. He was vulnerable. He did make mistakes. He could be killed! It would be left to 11,000 battered and tattered Marines over a period of four months, in a seemingly God forsaken place called Guadalcanal, to make that point very clear.

Henderson Field

And just what was this unknown piece of earth nearly lost in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean? It was an island, typical of so many in the Pacific. From a distance, it did indeed look like a paradise. Once on it however, one’s point of view quickly changed. The 90-mile length of the place is drenched with rains. Use Tulagi as an example. The annual rainfall average there is 160 inches, four times the normal amount in most areas!

The rains were at their worst from November to March. Everything stayed wet. The jungle floor, covered by huge rain forest trees, could not dry out. Mold and mildew devoured everything! It had 100% humidity all day, every day, and sometimes worse! Guadalcanal is also volcanic. It has a central spine of jagged peaks, covered with tropical rain forest, rising in places 8,000 feet above sea level. To the southwest the mountains slope fairly sharply to the coast. In contrast, on the northeastern side, the land is more open, even to the point of some wide plains, with numerous rivers and streams slicing it up.

These plains had been partially cleared for coconut plantations. What remained, or the larger part of the island was covered by huge trees, dense brush, and open spaces covered with kunai grass, at times reaching skyward to a height of seven feet. Calling it grass is a misnomer. The blades are thick and coarse, with cutting edges like a saw. It was definitely not the tropical paradise presented by Hollywood. If this were paradise, every Marine on it would prefer to live without enjoying that “pleasure!”

On disembarking onto the island, the first thing you would notice was the smell. No, not a smell, it was a gut-wrenching stench. Guadalcanal stank! Superabundant vegetation, quick to rot in the rich, hot, humidified sea air, turned to queasy slime beneath the thick canopy of trees that blocked out much of the sunlight. The odor was one of continual rot. The dank, rotting odor permeated everything on the island.

This atmosphere gave opportunity for the cultivation of every type of oniferous insect alive, including malarial mosquitoes and nameless bacteria. This continual dampness, cultivator of every type of creature to make a man’s life miserable, only added to human discomfort. The heat, under such humidified conditions, was almost unbearable. To men burdened with equipment, it was physically exhausting just to move in such weighted air. Instead of walking, one felt as though he were swimming.
 
The tropical jungle itself was alive, but resembled a malevolent beast, arrogant and cruel. Its foul breath was a hint of what lay within its bosom. This included serpents, crocodiles, and centipedes, which could crawl across the flesh in the night as one, slept fitfully, leaving a trail of swollen skin. Land crabs scuttled over the jungle floor in the night, sounding amazingly like an infiltrating Jap to a fearful ear.

There were also scorpions, lizards, leeches, wasps as long as your finger, and spiders as big as your fist. The mosquitoes were everywhere, all the time, and carried with them all sorts of disease, primarily the dreaded Malaria. Around its fetid shores, hungry sharks swam, waiting for an unsuspecting meal. They were always hungry.

The Marines Have Landed, and the Situation…?

August 6th, 1942, and the Marines of the 1st Division were going ashore at Guadalcanal. Anticipated tough resistance never materialized. In a matter of hours, the first Marine scouts, under occasional sniper fire were at the edge of the partially constructed enemy airfield on the northern end of the island. The Japanese garrison, instead of fighting, simply melted away into the jungle, leaving bowls of warm rice and saki still on the dining tables.

Pearl Harbor

It had been only eight months earlier that Admiral Nagumo had moved into position off Pearl Harbor with six fleet carriers for the initiation of the war. Now an American invasion fleet was entering what the Japanese considered inviolate territory. Their mission was conquest. Capturing the airfield on Guadalcanal and stopping the Japanese from cutting the supply lines to Australia was their primary mission.
 
The three leaders of the invasion stood on the deck of the carrier
Saratoga, lost in a heated discussion. Admiral Jack Fletcher, weary and fearful of the loss of one or more of his remaining carriers, was adamant. He would stay two days to cover the landings, and then he would withdraw at least 100 miles to the southeast.

He had 89 ships under his command and 19,000 Marines ready to do their job, the largest invasion force ever assembled up until that time. Yet the naval commander still was uncertain. He could not risk the three last carriers, Saratoga, Wasp, and Enterprise. Vice Admiral Kelly Turner, in charge of landing operations argued fiercely against such a move. He was a man of bushy brows, always furrowed into a half-frown, rimless glasses and a vocabulary that would make an old sailor blush. He never hesitated to speak his mind and was doing so now. Such an action was suicidal and would more than likely sacrifice the entire Marine division. They needed support! They could not possibly hold without it.

The third party in the discussion was General Alexander Archer Vandergrift, who was in command of the 1st Marine Division. He noticed the uncertainty in Fletcher’s voice, the weariness in his eyes and became concerned. Joining in the argument, Vandergrift strongly appealed the cause of continued naval support for the landings. It was all to no avail. Not two weeks, not five days, but at most two. Fletcher shook his head and turned away, saying as he did so, “This conference is dismissed.”

Ashore and Alone

Once ashore, the Marines proceeded to consolidate their position. Even though the capture of the airfield was without major incident, the Marine capture of nearby Tulagi Island was another matter. Here the Japanese put up a fierce, suicidal resistance against Lieutenant Colonel Merritt (Red Mike) Edson’s First Marine Raider Battalion. Edson was a slender man, with an iron set to his jaw and cold pale eyes that could pierce a man’s soul. His voice was soft, but the authority it carried was enough.

Marines Land on Tulagi Island

Edson’s men leaped from the Higgins landing craft, splashed through the surf and moved inland. One battalion skirted to the northeast and overran quickly the northern third of the island. The First lined up three companies abreast and moved across the tiny piece of coral and dank earth, killing Japanese as they went. By dusk, against intense sniper fire that seemed to come from every tree and building, the Marines owned all but one corner of the island. From there on that night the Japanese conducted the first Banzai attack of the war. Filled with liberal amounts of Saki and whiskey, the charged through the darkness into American lines, shouting obscenities in Japanese or using what limited English they knew.

“Banzai!” They shouted. “Hurrah!”

“Japanese boy drink American boy’s blood!”

Marine replies were even more obscene, punctuated with machine gun and Springfield rifle fire that ripped enemy ranks apart. Grenades spiraled through the air, punching holes in the pitch-blackness with flashes of red and yellow. Five times they charged, and five times they were cut to ribbons. By dawn of the 7th, there was little left with which to resist. By the afternoon of the 8th, the only living Japanese on Tulagi were less than a half-dozen badly wounded enemy soldiers.

The other smaller islands, Tulagi, Florida Island, and the twin islands of Gavutu and Tanambogo were for the most part free of any Japanese intervention. On the main island, the Marines continued to advance and established a strong defensive perimeter well south of the airfield, now named after Major Lofton Henderson, a Marine Pilot who had given his life at the battle of Midway. It was now known as “Henderson Field.”

On the second day, an enemy air raid of twenty-four torpedo bombers was observed by coast watchers and driven off by intense anti-aircraft fire. Even during the attack, sailors worked frantically to off load the equipment and get the rest of the division onshore. Time was working against them. Another attack on the 8th claimed the transport George F. Elliott, the first American ship among many allied vessels that would eventually line the bottom of Iron Bottom Sound.

With Fletcher’s carrier forces withdrawn and no protection for his transports, Admiral Kelly was forced to withdraw. Many vital necessities had as yet to be unloaded, but now the Marines on Guadalcanal would have to fend for themselves. They were on their own.

As the days passed, the Japanese went into action. A series of naval engagements around Savo Island proved disastrous for the allied fleet. The waters around Guadalcanal now belonged to the Japanese, but only at night. The arrival of F4F wildcats, SBD Dauntlesses, P39 Aircobras and the twin-boomed P-38 Lightnings of the Army gave the defenders hope in a very dark hour. The first Japanese attack took place at the Ilu River, when the “Ichiki” Force was virtually annihilated.

Angry at this failure, General Hyakutake ordered into battle what remained of the “Ichiki” Group, 1,000 Marines of the Yokasuka Fifth Naval Landing Force and Major General Kawaguchi’s Brigade of 5,000 Borneo veterans to eliminate this insidious western cancer. Faulty intelligence had estimated Marine strength at 2,000. Actually, there were nearly 11,000 on the island.

Japanese Reinforcements Arrive

The reinforcement effort would be protected by a large Japanese naval force, including three carriers and three battleships. Using the small carrier Ryujo as bait (the same strategy had been used with the Shoho in the Battle of the Coral Sea), Nagumo lured Fletcher’s force into action.

The Ryujo was attacked and sunk. Then planes from the Zuikaku and Shokaku struck the US forces, damaging the Enterprise with three bomb hits. American forces nearly sank the seaplane tender Chitose and then withdrew. Nagumo was unable to relocate them.

Meanwhile, the Cactus Air Force launched vicious attacks against the Japanese landing force and drove it away. It would have to return in landing barges under the cover of darkness to arrive safely. The bulk of the force landed to the east of Henderson Field on September 6th at Taivu Point and immediately proceeded inland.

The bigger artillery pieces and most of the supplies were left at Tasimboko. Two days later, the Marine Raiders discovered the Japanese cache, attacked its defenders and wreaked havoc. They hauled the big guns into the sea, hurling their breechblocks into deeper water. They availed themselves of canned crabmeat, confiscated British cigarettes, and anything else of value to them. The rest of the material was burned or destroyed.
 
The ultimate insult was the taking of General Kawaguchi’s dress uniform. The Japanese commander had specifically brought it with him for the surrender ceremonies when his glorious troops recaptured Henderson Field and drove the impudent Americans back into the sea. Now his fancy pants had been taken prisoner and the General would have to continue in his khaki field dress.

A Long, Hard Journey

The Japanese plan included a three-pronged attack, all to be conducted simultaneously. The Ilu force would strike from the east, the Matanikau force from the west, while Kawaguchi’s main force of 3,000 would strike from the south, over a large ridge that bordered the southern end of the Marine defensive perimeter. The two flanking attacks were a diversion. Kawaguchi would take the bulk of his force and secure the major triumph. His men used as a rallying cry “Remember the Ichiki Suicide” (Ichiki had taken his life when his earlier attack across the Ilu river failed) 

Led by Kawaguchi himself, the long, arduous march around the American perimeter began on September 7th. It was a nightmare.  Hacking their way through dense, rain-soaked jungles, struggling up and down hills with heavy equipment, wading through treacherous swamps, they perspired profusely. They received scratches and cuts that quickly festered. The mosquitoes were unrelenting in their attacks. They staggered with fatigue and dysentery, but on they came.

Guadalcanal 1942

The discovery of Kawaguchi’s supply dump revealed to the Marine leaders the presence of the enemy reinforcements, but no one was sure from where they would strike. Something big was in the wind, but when and where? A careful study of maps and the terrain pointed out the most likely spot as a rugged, relatively barren ridge rising from the jungle about a mile south of Henderson. The Marines as yet had not occupied it. In fact, the entire southern perimeter was very weak.

Vandergrift had placed his greatest strength on the flanks and along the coast. The only available force to occupy the area was Red Mike’s First Raider Battalion and units of the Marine Parachute Battalion (command by Captain Harry Torgerson, who had the seat of his pants blown off in the fighting at Gavutu). Edson, ever the optimist, told his men they were headed to a quiet rest area. They were ready for it. Weeks of combat and jungle marches had left them exhausted. But it was to be far from an area of rest for the Raiders!

Now It Begins

On the 12th of September, Kawaguchi had finally assembled two of his three battalions at the jump-off point, the northern slopes of Mount Austen. The last battalion had not yet caught up. No matter, the attack would proceed without them. The force had suffered horribly from the difficult trek across country and was hardly in shape for what was to come. National pride, however, more than compensated for the physical maladies and the troops proceeded to the departure line.

Marines on Guadalcanal

An afternoon rain had drenched the 600 Marine defenders along the ridge and as night fell, the waterlogged troops sought some comfort and much needed rest. It was not to be. At 9:00 PM, a green flare was dropped from an overhead Japanese patrol plane. In less than half an hour, enemy ships began to bombard the ridge. The larger 8” shells from a cruiser had the sound of approaching freight trains as they passed overhead, but most failed to hit their target. The Marines were largely unscathed, just shaken.
 
The cacophony of the naval shelling ended and was replaced by the "whoomp" of mortar fire that peppered the ridge. That was joined by machine gun fire and shouts from the darkness, “US Marines be dead tomorrow! US Marines be dead tomorrow!” This was accompanied by the men slapping their rifle butts in unison as they advanced.
 
The charge was hard and fast. Japanese grenadiers came first, followed by riflemen and light machine gunners. They moved in columns abreast, their line stretching back into the blackness. Attempting to use the darkness as their ally, however, resulted in mass confusion among Kawaguchi’s forces. They became disorganized and the result was a series of smaller close-in fights, with fists, feet, bayonets, trench knives and entrenching tools. Men struggled with men and strangled the life from them. It soon degenerated into a mindless melee where neither commander had control. The battle raged in each foxhole where a man fought to either conquer or repel.

Suddenly the Raider’s line was penetrated! With some Japanese breaching the line. Seven Marines were cut off and never seen again. Their bodies weren’t even found after the battle. Sadly for Kawaguchi, the advantage could not be held. The Japanese had spent themselves and could not hold their breakthrough. By 5:00 AM they had withdrawn back into the dense jungle.

The Grim Reality

The Raiders were stunned and hurt. Furthermore, their pride had been dealt a blow. The Japanese had driven them back. Losses that night forced Red Mike to consolidate his lines and withdraw further back on the ridge. With leaden feet, moving like zombies, the Marine Raiders and Paratroopers shuffled back to new positions. No sleep and the intense heat continued to suck at their energy. One man in three had become a casualty in the first attack.

One third of Edson’s strength was gone. Now 400 able bodied Raiders and Para-Marines would try to hold a line 1,800 yards long against over 2,000 enemy troops. It was one Marine for every five yards against five Japanese soldiers. The odds were grim to say the least. Edson knew that Kawaguchi was not finished. There would be another attack and he had to be ready.  Talking among his men, Edson flatly stated to them,  “It is useless to ask ourselves why it is we are here. We are here. There is only us between the airfield and the Japs. If we don’t hold, we will lose Guadalcanal.”
 
On the other hand, Kawaguchi, while disappointed that the ridge had not been taken, was still in good spirits. The enemy had been pushed back and seemed to be in disarray. One more push, then over the ridge and the Japanese Army would present to Admiral Yamamoto and the Emperor a lovely present: Henderson Field. He was so anxious to get started that he scheduled this attack for 6:30 PM. It would all be over by midnight and the prize would be his.
 
The Japanese leaders at Rabaul were puzzled. Radio contact with the troops on Guadalcanal had been lost. But surely the airfield was now in General Kawaguchi’s hand. Lined up along airfield, transports filled with troops and equipment were ready to be on their way to make their landings at Henderson Field, now most assuredly in friendly hands. Then the retaking of the island could be completed.

Just to be sure, four scout planes were sent to reconnoiter the area. When only three returned some hours later, riddled with antiaircraft fire, it was deemed wise to hold off on the movement of the air transports one more day!

The Final Push

The attack began promptly on time. Kawaguchi would not wait for the preliminary shelling by offshore naval guns tonight. Nor would he hold up on the attack until the remaining battalion of his brigade had fully arrived. The 2,100 of Japanese finest should be able to easily sweep aside what puny resistance remained. Reports from scouts indicated that the enemy lines had shrunk and there had been a withdrawal.

The effeminate Americans would undoubtedly collapse with just a little more pressure. This final thrust would secure his dream of triumph. He was extremely anxious to gain his glorious victory. As darkness descended over the ridge, the Japanese mortars began spitting out a new rain of death on Marine positions.
 
Red Mike, however, had been busy all day. As most of his men tried to get a few hours of sleep, the Colonel ran from one place to another, preparing for the next attack that would surely come that night. He first secured the close artillery support of the 11th Marines 105mm howitzers, commanded by Colonel Pedro de Valle. In addition he moved back and forth across the ridge, finding better positions for his heavier machine guns.

Mortar crews under Edson’s guidance had zeroed in on what would be most likely the lanes of approach by the enemy. Finally, he had done all he could. Wearily he returned to his command post, close to the front lines, informing his adjutant, “Nothing to do now, but wait for it to happen.”
 
In only an hour, it did happen, or at least it began. The usual flare fell from the sky, this time dropped by “Louie the Louse,” and the attack began. The distant darkness of the jungle suddenly seemed to open up in dozens of different places where tiny men in khaki uniforms were spat out from the thick foliage. “Oh, Lord!” Cried a lookout. “Here they come!”
 
And come they did! This time firing from the hip, the attackers moved briskly toward the foot of the ridge. Marine rifles and machine guns split open the blackness and produced horrid screams of pain from below. Then 105mm shells, whooshing low over Marine lines crashed into the valley just ahead of them. Marine Bill Keller thought they were too low. “ I wasn’t about to stand up, for fear of losing the top of my helmet.”

The ranks of the Japanese were ripped apart by the explosions. The battlefield teemed with flashes of light and the roar of so many weapons firing simultaneously was terribly unnerving. In minutes, the lower slopes were dotted with dozens of bodies, some very still, others writhing in pain in the midst of the grass fires ignited by the falling shells.
 
Japanese machine guns, located in the fringes of the jungle, watched for the flashed of the heavier American .50 caliber guns. Once found, the Japanese sprayed them mercilessly. As a gunner fell, a loader, or ammo carrier instantly replaced him. One heavy machine gun team was killed, one by one, to the last man in less than thirty minutes.

The range soon closed. Even with the devastating fire emanating from the ridge, there were so many of the enemy that they were into American forward positions and the fighting again was hand to hand. Japanese officers whirled their “Samurai” swords in the air. Enlisted men frantically worked the bolts on their rifles, and fired as they charged. Some of the attackers were armed only with bamboo spears, but they fought as valiantly as their better-armed comrades did. In some areas hand grenade duels began, their flat explosions ripping limbs from bodies and filling others with hot, deadly shrapnel. Bayonets and entrenching tools also came into play.
 
One Marine reached for more ammo in the bandoleer at his feet. Suddenly he looked up into the face of a Japanese officer rushing towards him. With no time to fire, he threw up his Springfield rifle to fend off the sword thrust. The steel bit steeply into the butt of the weapon and neatly amputated two fingers on the Marine’s right hand. Then both sword and rifle went spinning off into the darkness from the strength of the blow. The Gyrene quickly reached out with his good left hand and found the throat of the officer. Kicking and choking his enemy, the Marine finished his deadly task and then went to find bandages and a corpsman.

The attack made some penetration on the right flank, where 1,000 Japanese concentrated their efforts against 100 Para-Marines. Though fragmented, the flank held. The assault finally ran out of steam and the remaining Japanese disappeared as quickly as they had materialized out of the darkness. Another attack, an hour later, closely resembled the first. It too failed. The American line bent under the strain and began to resemble a horseshoe. Five more attacks were launched during the night and none fared any better.
 
Shortly before the last Japanese effort took place, the Marines were nearly out of everything except guts. Edson grabbed a young corporal named Watson, who had some experience in calling in artillery supporting fire. By 12 Noon of that day, he would be Second Lieutenant Watson for the cool skill he demonstrated in calling down hell from the heavens on the relentless enemy. Watching carefully the rocket signals of the Japanese, he pinpointed their assembly points. Then round after round slammed into them. As he worked feverishly, the final attack began. Edson crouched beside Watson controlling the fire. He continued to bring it forward to his own front lines.
 
“Closer,” whispered Edson. “Closer.”

Now the ridge trembled and flamed as the shells landed within 50 yards of the most forward Marine positions. The terrified Japanese leaped into enemy foxholes to escape the hell around them. They were knifed by crouching Raiders and tossed them back out again. The horror of artillery is the way it tears men apart. It does not kill cleanly, but rips their flesh and limbs from their bodies, and hurls them into the air; it bursts internal organs with concussion, and singes away parts of the face away from the skull.

Now Marine mortars added to the holocaust. It was more than the attackers could bear. They withdrew once again. Now Edson sent a message to General Vandergrift’s headquarters, short and simple: “WE CAN HOLD.”
 
By morning, it was over. One of the most important battles of Guadalcanal had ended with the Raiders and Para-Marines, badly beaten up, but still “king of the hill.” The Kawaguchis, meanwhile, had mournfully begun to retrace their steps back from whence they had come. One Japanese officer wrote of this newest ordeal: “I cannot help from crying when I see the sight of those men marching without food for four or five days, drinking from muddy puddles of stinking water, carrying the wounded through the curving and sloping mountain trails. The wounds couldn’t be given adequate medical treatment. There was not a one without maggots. Many died.” In fact, over 600 of them perished at the ridge, another 250 at the Tenaru, and another 100 at the Matanikau. The Marines counted 40 dead, 104 wounded and 12 that were missing in action. Only five of these would be found.

Raising the Colors on Guadalcanal

Thus this nameless spot on the island became another chapter of Marine legend. It would not remain nameless. So crucial to holding Guadalcanal and Henderson Field, the site would gain two names. It came to be known as “Edson’s Ridge,” or “Bloody Ridge, both of which seemed very appropriate.
 
As for the significance of this and other actions on Guadalcanal, a top staff officer at Imperial General Headquarters wrote early in the campaign, “We must be aware of the possibility that the struggle for Guadalcanal in the southeast area may develop into the decisive struggle between America and Japan. It is a fork in the road; one direction leading to ultimate victory for the Americans, the other leads to the final triumph for us.”

Sources:

Delivered from Evil, R. Leckie
War in the Pacific, W. Gailey
Eagle Against the Sun, R. Spector
Guadalcanal, The First Offensive, J. Miller
Guadalcanal, E. Hoyt
The Campaign for Guadalcanal, J. Coggins
Goodbye Darkness, W. Manchester
A Special Valor, R. Wheeler
Semper Fidelis, A. Millet

Author Information:

Wild Bill Wilder, a native of Atlanta, Georgia, was introduced to modern warfare as a tot in World War II when his father and uncle went off to war in the USAAF. It was an experience that influenced him greatly throughout his life. After graduating from Toccoa Falls College in 1962, he spent the next 10 years in public service in various countries in Central America. He then worked in public transportation until his retirement in 1999.

Wild Bill now has even more time to dedicate to his passion - wargaming. In 1997 he formed a group called "Wild Bill’s Raiders." From small beginnings the Raiders expanded into five separate web sites and gave top-notch coverage to a number of popular wargames.

Bill has also been a vital part of the production of 13 different games, including SPWAW, Combat Mission, The Operational Art of War,  and John Tiller’s Squad Battles series. He has authored over 1300 scenarios and campaigns for these and other games over the last nine years. At age 68, Bill is also a prolific writer, with his primary focus on warfare of the 20th century. To quote him, "Wargaming is a passion that never dies with the passing of the years. Instead it only intensifies as new and better wargames are produced. It is in military history that one finds often written in blood the glory and the grief of mankind!"


Article printed from Armchair General Magazine

Back to Home

copyright © 2007-2013 USS San Francisco Memorial Foundation

webmaster